Year in Focus

01 Year in Focus
01 Year in Focus

Bombs & promises

The pacification of Europe after 1945 was the greatest achievement of politics in the 20th century. A continent drenched in blood for centuries, then torn asunder by two world wars, was transformed within a generation into a bastion of peace. This transformation was achieved by historic leadership, as politicians of the postwar era sought to knit the continent together to the point that war would become unthinkable. The victorious Allies, having failed to listen to warnings after World War I about the perils of mistreating vanquished countries,1 heeded those warnings after World War II. France and Germany, savage enemies in the two wars, developed a warm trust in their aftermath, their alliance becoming the beating heart of the unification project that ultimately became the European Union.

The European peace was a tense peace, to be certain, with an increasingly prosperous Western Europe staring across the Iron Curtain at the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Peace was maintained in part by a mutual fear of nuclear annihilation. And while the fractious states of Europe had stopped fighting, they had certainly not stopped arguing — over everything from fishing rights to oil concessions to wine labels to British scepticism towards the unification project. The peace came under strain in 1991, when a series of ethnic conflicts on Europe’s southern periphery followed the break-up of Yugoslavia — and served as a warning that the incipient collapse of Communism might unleash old group hatreds and new territorial claims. Yet across the heart of Europe, peace held.

That peace had begun at 2:41 a.m. on May 7 1945, in the French city of Reims, when General Alfred Jodl surrendered the armed forces of Nazi Germany to the Allies. Seventy-six years and nine months later, at 6 a.m. Moscow time on February 24 2022, Vladimir Putin stood in front of television cameras at the Kremlin and shattered the peace of Europe.

A small child walks through concrete and metal debris from an explosion.

A child walks through debris left by an explosion from a Russian missile strike on a civilian neighbourhood in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on July 6 2022. Image: Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

As he spoke, volleys of bombs and missiles hurtled toward Ukraine. The Russian Army, though quickly beaten back in its initial attempt to seize the whole of the country, is still on the march, seeking to carve up Ukraine. Seven million refugees have poured across the borders into Poland, Moldova, Romania and other countries,2 and a third of the Ukrainian population has been displaced internally.3 All-important grain shipments from Ukraine, one of the world’s major suppliers, were blockaded for months, precipitating a global food crisis, with large increases in world hunger. This sudden grain shortage occurred against the backdrop of threats to agriculture from the climate crisis, including increasingly intense summer heatwaves. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the military and diplomatic coalition the Allies built after World War II, is shipping arms and other matériel to Ukraine in a direct challenge to Russia. Once again, the spectre of nuclear Armageddon — until recently regarded as a relic of 20th-century history — hangs over the world.

In retrospect, many countries in Western Europe committed a grave error in their relations with the Soviet Union and its successor state, Russia. In the decades of the Cold War, they allowed themselves to become dependent on Russia for supplies of fossil fuels, and particularly gas from the vast fields in Siberia. The Germans, under a policy called Ostpolitik, threw themselves into helping Russia develop these reserves, financing much of the pipeline construction and buying the resulting gas. The theory was that strong commercial ties would tame Russian aggression. The American government fretted over the risks its European allies were taking. As one such pipeline was being considered in 1981, America’s Central Intelligence Agency wrote a secret analysis asserting that the project “would provide the Soviets one additional pressure point they could use as part of a broader diplomatic offensive to persuade the West Europeans to accept their viewpoint on East-West issues. Such pressures might be directed, for example, at undermining European willingness to act in concert with the U.S. on economic sanctions against the Soviets or on security issues”.4

Ronald Reagan, the American president at the time, briefly tried to stop the pipeline, but the Europeans were determined to move forward. The continent was, and still is, densely populated, resource-poor and unable to meet its own energy needs with fossil fuels. European leaders had come out of the energy crises of the 1970s hoping that the Russians, under their plodding Communist government, would be more reliable energy suppliers than hostile Arab and Persian states. Reagan’s position was also undermined at home, by lobbying and campaign donations from American fossil-fuel companies, which saw long-term opportunities in Russia.5

The European dependency on Russia thus grew for decades, as a spider web of pipelines spread across the Eurasian continent. Their cheerful names — Northern Lights, Blue Stream, TurkStream, Nord Stream, Brotherhood — belied the rising risks. Remarkably, German imports of Russian gas continued to grow even after Vladimir Putin seized Crimea in 2014, dispelling any doubt about his territorial ambitions. By the time the war started in 2022, Germany was getting more than half its gas from Russia.6

Now, of course, a reckoning is at hand. The Russians are manipulating gas supplies in precisely the way the C.I.A. predicted four decades ago. Europe confronts the stark possibility of running out of gas this winter, while German industry may be forced to shut down to keep German households from freezing. The entire European Union is scrambling to slash dependency on Russian gas, relying in part on American gas to replace it. Russian fossil-fuel exports have fallen as some countries stop buying, but prices have soared to such a degree that Russia may be earning as much or more from its exports as it was before the invasion. Fossil-fuel money from the Western democracies is thus helping to pay for the Ukraine war.

Amidst this historical tragedy, its roots reaching deep into European history, a window of opportunity has opened. If the politicians of today can match those of the mid-20th century for vision and courage, Europe has an opportunity to write a new history for the continent — and for Planet Earth.


In the short term, European politicians are scouring the world for fossil-fuel supplies not mined in Russia. The situation poses grave risks for the clean-energy transition. A flood of quick investment into fossil-fuel infrastructure — new pipelines and new import terminals for liquefied gas are already being built — risks locking in dependency on dirty energy for the longer term. Expanded reliance on new fossil-fuel supplies from countries like Venezuela or Saudi Arabia may create new geopolitical vulnerabilities, with the Western democracies essentially swapping one autocratic supplier for others.

And yet, for the longer term, the dangers of fossil-fuel dependency stand more starkly revealed than ever. The European desire to solve the climate crisis — a problem for which the EU has long aspired to leadership — has now come into alignment with the European need for energy security. How Europe resolves the tension between its near-term supply crisis and its long-term interests will determine whether the EU can maintain its position as the world’s leader in battling climate breakdown. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe had set ambitious goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions — goals so ambitious it was not clear whether they could be met. Now, the EU is moving to accelerate those goals. Meeting the new targets will require a radical, rapid scale-up in renewable energy, along with many other steps, including reductions in demand through hyper-efficient energy use.

The situation demands a rapid increase in the rate at which new renewable-energy supplies are being developed. It requires creating entirely new industries from scratch, like the ability to generate clean hydrogen that can then be used to produce clean steel, fertiliser and chemicals. These goals can only be achieved by persuading a large majority of the European public to embrace them. Over time, meeting them will cost trillions of euros, though it is likely that climate inaction would be more costly still.

Beyond Europe’s borders, the entire world has a stake in seeing Europe succeed in this quest. Nowhere else is an urgent security crisis opening the floodgates of potential climate finance the way the Ukraine war is doing. That puts Europe in a position to develop climate solutions that it can then export, and to make those solutions cheap enough that other countries will welcome them. Europe could see large economic gains if it becomes a main supplier of the climate technology the world needs.

How can Europe do this? The answer is clear, because Europe has already done it with some important technologies. A German policy of supporting solar power led to a massive scale-up of that technology, especially after the Chinese rushed in to supply the growing German market. As solar power got bigger, the costs of panels fell radically: by almost 90 percent in a decade. Large subsidies were required at the outset, but as costs fell, so did the subsidy requirement. Likewise, the United Kingdom spent more than any other country on supporting the development of offshore wind power, driving costs down sharply. The Americans, who sat on the sidelines as European governments spent heavily on those technologies, are now seizing on the lower costs and ordering thousands of solar farms in their Southern states, as well as offshore wind turbines along their coasts. The Indian government has likewise seized on cheap panels to commission large solar farms. (See “Wright’s Law”, below, for an explanation of why these technologies got cheaper as governments spent money on scaling them up.)

Even as Europe accelerates the deployment of these existing technologies, the continent must work on those that will be needed in the 2030s and 2040s to complete the energy transition. These include methods of storing renewable power for long periods. They include power plants that emit no greenhouse gases yet can be switched on at any time, unlike wind and solar farms. They include advanced electric cars, as well as clean lorries and planes. The needed technologies number in the scores.

There is hope, this time, that European governments will get significant help from the Americans. This past summer, after new climate legislation had been given up for dead, a surprise deal in the United States Congress led to passage of a major bill called the Inflation Reduction Act. Its main provisions focus on the climate crisis, and commit the United States to spending hundreds of billions of dollars in budget outlays and tax breaks to speed the energy transition. American president Joe Biden promised upon taking office that the United States would cut its emissions 50 percent by 2030, from their peak level in 2005. Forecasts by several groups of analysts suggest the new law will help lead to a cut of around 40 percent,8 and the Biden administration has committed to additional, administrative action to help close the gap.

This development in the United States means that country is poised to play a major role in helping to drive clean-energy technology forward. To have both regions pushing hard together for the first time should make the goals that much more attainable.

Nevertheless, it remains true that the political will and the sense of urgency are higher in Europe, and the new goals the EU is considering would put the region ahead of the United States. What might stop the European governments from achieving those goals?

Need for speed

Polls suggest that the German people are highly committed to the energy transition, with 79 percent of the public calling climate change a “very serious problem” in a recent Eurobarometer poll.9 Yet, for years now, no new onshore wind farm has been built in Germany without objection from nearby residents, with court fights often required to resolve the status of the project. Work on critically needed power lines, to move electricity from Germany’s windy north to its industrial south, has slowed to a crawl amid public opposition. In Britain, onshore wind construction has largely shut down, again due to objections from local communities. In countries where wind projects can be built, getting the necessary environmental and other permits can take as long as eight or nine years.10

Offshore wind faces similar issues over environmental permits, but it faces some hard physical realities too. Across much of the North Sea, the sea floor is littered with unexploded ordnance from World War II. Specialised crews must investigate and clear any bombs before projects can move forward. Constructing offshore wind farms also requires special boats, and a shortage of these looms as the goals ramp up.11 The biggest issue is that only a minority of the world’s coastlines are suitable for development with the existing technology, in which turbines are planted in the sea floor in relatively shallow water. In most places, the continental shelf drops off too quickly for that. Along these coasts a new technology is required: floating offshore wind. Europe has installed the first such turbines and is poised to lead the way, but the technology is still in its early stages.

The financing mechanisms to support development of large renewables projects remain a work in progress. For wind farms, the rules effectively require developers to lock in supply contracts for turbines long before construction begins, leaving the turbine makers exposed to commodity risk. This theoretical problem became very real in 2022, as soaring steel and other input prices undermined the economics of contracts signed a few years earlier. The European wind-turbine manufacturers have been losing money recently, a bizarre development at a time when Europe is planning a huge escalation of its clean-energy goals.12 They may need direct state aid to get through this difficult period, or contracts may need to be reopened to allow for the rising costs.

The European Union has a plan13 to solve many of the bottlenecks. Anyone who wants to know how serious the bloc is about speeding the transition should watch how that plan develops over the coming year or so. The centrepiece is a requirement that EU member states make a decision on environmental permits for projects within two years of the time a developer files an application. In addition, the EU wants member governments to set aside large “go-to” areas where renewable-energy development will be explicitly encouraged, and to issue permits in those areas within one year of the application being filed. If member governments comply with these requirements, the result will be a radical acceleration in the timeline for renewables development. In the near term, this may be the single most important test of how serious Europe is about its new goals.

The lengthy court fights over projects must also be shortened. Again, the EU has a plan: to codify into European law the principle that renewables development is an overriding public interest. Now, environmental laws meant for the protection of birds, fish or marine mammals often have that legal status, whereas renewables projects do not.

These same fights are playing out around the world, in any country that has adopted strong measures for environmental protection. In other words, the local goal of preserving landscapes and wildlife can come into conflict with the global goal of averting climate breakdown. In a sense, this merely demonstrates how acute the environmental crisis has become: we are out of easy answers, and no one gets a pass on having to make difficult choices and trade-offs. But environmental laws written in the 1970s are proving inadequate for resolving the conflicts in a timely way, and the energy transition cannot proceed at the pace required unless a better balance is struck.

If the people of Europe are serious in their plans to move away from fossil energy, we will see a wave of national laws passed over the coming year to meet the goals the EU has established. We will also see large sums of money begin to move into nascent industries like green hydrogen, green steel, low-carbon cement and so forth.

Even if it can be accelerated, the transition is still going to take decades. Perhaps the question now is whether the great lessons of 2022 will stick in the minds of European leaders long enough for them to make good on the promises they made when the Russian bombs began to fall.